A history of Borough Market

A history of Borough Market

The wholesale era

National significance
Set back from the road, the new Borough Market was initially fairly parochial in character, selling a large range of everyday produce in relatively small quantities. It was during the 19th century that all this changed, with the Market expanding to become an institution of national significance, devoted solely to the fruit and vegetable wholesale trade. This change was driven by the urbanisation of south London and the arrival of the railway. As business flourished, the Market took over the land that forms the Green Market, then later bought and demolished the buildings on Winchester Walk to make way for what is now Jubilee Place.

In 1862, as part of the South Eastern Railway company’s project to extend its lines from London Bridge, a railway viaduct was constructed through the middle of the market, bringing noise, soot and disruption, but increasing the accessibility of the Market. The need to widen the railway line in 1897 brought more disruption, as well as the sad demise of the Market’s magnificent but short-lived glass and iron domed roof, which had brought a touch of Crystal Palace glamour to Borough. 

Voluntary trustees
In 1906, the Market’s constitution was changed, placing its management in the hands of 21 voluntary trustees drawn from the local community. The institution grew still further in the early 1930s, when the old Three Crown Square—a residential piazza that had become a series of ramshackle warehouses—was demolished. The same development project saw the creation of the Market’s famous art deco entrance and the construction of its office building.

At its peak, the wholesale market was a place of furious activity, supplying millions of people around the southeast. In 1933, it is estimated that 1,750,000 bushels of fruit and vegetables were sold here. In the mid-1930s, 188 pitching stands were let to 81 different wholesale companies, with a further 203 stands in the uncovered periphery manned by farmers from the Home Counties. Hundreds of porters were employed directly by the trustees to carry produce to and from the stalls, with trading taking place all through the night, and continuing long into the following day.

Swift decline
Borough Market’s days as a vital wholesale hub were ended in part by the construction of New Covent Garden market in Vauxhall in the 1970s, but mainly by the relentless growth of the supermarkets which, by killing off independent greengrocers, destroyed the ecosystem in which fruit and vegetable wholesaling had thrived. The decline was swift and sad.